Sunday, April 29, 2012

Big weather. Little birds

I love BIG weather. The downside is it can cause flooding, take off the garden shed roof, cut off the phones or hinder travel but it makes you feel small, a little bit helpless and even insignificant, and in this modern world where we're each at the centre of our own personal universe- a sense of scale within the wider world probably isn't a bad thing.

Today's strong winds brought down a few boughs and the odd tree but they weren't the strongest to date but they were relentless and unseasonal and when combined with the driving rain they made today a bad day to be a wild bird.

The farm as a whole is already struggling to cope with the heavy and continued rain we've had. It is of course much-needed but arriving all at once as it has makes it seem like Mother Nature is being sarcastic. We lamb our sheep later than many farms as it allows us the time to comfortably get all the cattle out of their winter housing and into the fields- it also means the weather is typically more favourable and the lambs can be born outside with minimal human interference- but it looks like the gamble didn't pay off.

This year the young stock are still indoors, the dairy herd are turning their fields to mud and lambs are being born into constant rain and biting winds. You know your fields are sodden when they attract Mallards, dozens of Starlings and a daily flock of foraging gulls that has now reached over 200 birds.

Today's strong winds and rain saw many birds seeking shelter; the bird feeders were abandoned, the sky empty and even the most persistent species like the gulls and the corvids were overpowered and depleted in number. Occasionally Chiffchaffs, Willow Warblers and Blackcaps were still singing, but from the hedgebottoms not the treetops.

Perhaps the saddest site of the day was a scattering of little black dots on a bankside that turned out to be a flock of Swallows. As I approached I could see their feathers were drenched, their wings hanging by their sides, and they appeared exhausted as they made little effort to move despite my presence. 'Our' Swallows were already sheltering in the farm buildings but these were clearly someone else's birds- probably headed north but stopped in their tracks.

I've seen Swallows on the ground before, but only odd birds, and always by the side of puddles in the farmyard as they collect mud for their nests. This was something different, but I backed away. It was unlikely I could do anything for them that wouldn't risk more harm than good- even trying to gather them up would probably be a rather misguided and destructive affair. But I did resolve to keep an eye on them.

I thought about those Swallows for much of the day- all the trials and thousands of miles they'd endured to get here and I then thought about what they'd arrived to. Yet the more I thought about them, the more I realised just how smart and how tough these little birds are.

Yes, the conditions weren't exactly Swallow-friendly but rather than continuing to fly on unsuccessfully they (guided by their survival instincts) had decided to cut their losses and sit it out. They were basically doing what I'd do in their position. What's more they'd chosen one of the farm's few south facing banks to land on- they were safe from the north-easterly wind, and indeed the rain. The howling winds blowing just a couple of feet over their heads were enough to keep many would-be predators off their cases.

So today's Swallows were a sorry sight and I don't believe in sugar-coating a pill, no matter how bitter- but, drenched and exhausted when flying was impossible- they'd taken a rather practical plan B. A decision that turned out to be the right one as  5 hours later, when the wind had died down (a little) they were all back on the wing, zipping along the woodland edge and catching any insect brave enough to take flight. They'll be gone tomorrow and if you live north of Derbyshire they might just end up somewhere near you.

Big weather can cause big problems, but the environment is full of little survivors that are capable of great feats of endurance. Some species are more delicate and prone to suffer but you'd be surprised at how good they are at pulling though when more is at risk than just the phone connection or the garden shed roof.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Putting a price on our farmland birds...

Money makes the world go round. It's no secret and it's not ideal, but it's a fact and it's the reason why so much is wrong with the world.

Take for example the decline of our farmland birds. The demand for cheap food and the post-war subsidisation of our food production led to their decline, and in a way it's my fault, and it's your fault, and the fault of everyone that's eaten anything in the last 60 years (which is most of us).

Our farmers were the ones doing the producing that led to this decline and are the ones we all blame for the fact that these days if want to see a Corn Bunting I need a train ticket and a lot of luck.

As a nation we like to think that we control our farmers, because their work is subsidised. Rightly or wrongly we feel a degree of ownership over them and the countryside they manage. Since we pay our taxes we feel they should farm how we want them to and not how the rules of capitalism dictate they should.

In many ways that's not a bad thing if people feel connected to their countryside and feel impassioned to seek change for the better.

Whilst we seek that change we must also remember that it's money  that makes the world go round. Goodwill can go a long way, and our farmers have bucket-loads of it, but farming remains a profit-driven industry.

This isn't a thinly-veiled appeal for more Government money as cynics may believe, I'm simply highlighting the fact that if our farmed environment is to support the species we would like it to then we have to find the best way to make that happen with the limited resources we have- this also HAS to be viable when compared to farming the land for maximum output.

This isn't easy. In fact it's bloody tricky, and made all the more difficult by the fact that in many sectors the price paid for our food is now slowly increasing, making more intensive food production an ever-more appealing option for someone looking to make a living from the land. And who can blame them, you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone willing to work for a lesser salary to stricter guidelines dictated by someone else.

The simple answer is not to offer any form of subsidisation to those that don't farm in an environmentally-sympathetic manner, and that's logical. But if food prices continue to increase it's not going to be enough of a disincentive to put people of farming for a higher profit.

It's a  bit of a conundrum- not least because it leads us to question what price we would pay for our farmland species. We HAVE to know what to do if subsidising the environment cannot compete with the demand for food.

It's not all bad news- there are things we can do to farm the land for profit AND wildlife- some of them remarkably simple and effective. The Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust and the RSPB have worked hard on finding practical solutions, their work has correctly focused on the evolution of our farming practices rather than a revolution within the industry.

What we now need to think about is how we encourage and inspire farmers to adopt the successful measures- and it's not always that farmers are unwilling to do these things. If I went to my local livestock auction and spoke to those assembled around the sales ring about Lapwings I don't doubt they'd all lament their demise, but probably all be unsure if and how they could do anything to make a difference.

The other thing they'd all be pretty sure of is that they were to blame for the Lapwings disappearance- they've been told it enough.

I see the farming community as a huge pool of neo-conservationists- they have the potential to be the Corn Buntings best friend. Because of existing environmental subsidies, the good work of groups such as the RSPB and The Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust, and the will of the farming community we have the potential to apply the brakes to (and where possible reverse) species decline- depsite the increased demand for affordable food.

We now need all those concerned to make a concerted effort to implement the findings of these trials, they need to disseminate their results to farmers and not just fellow conservationists, and where possible pull out all the stops to help and encourage farmers to take up new methods. Offering incentives to farm for wildlife may convince some- but for others just showing that farming for wildlife will not hinder profits is more effective.

Helping to save our farmland birds is all about looking to the future and not the past. It's about working with farmers and not standing on your soapbox, pointing the finger of blame and repeatedly telling them it's their fault. Especially when we've all so clearly dined on the fruits of their labour.

So money makes the world go round- and we have to accept it. So subsidise the farmers or don't subsidise the farmers- the sustainability of subsidised agriculture is always questionable and as demand for food increases it may end up being irrelevant anyway. Working with farmers for a profitable AND sustainable countryside will be better for all of us in the long run.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

April (snow) showers, bring forth May flowers...

Sometimes Spring can seem a bit like a tick list- beginning somewhere in darkest February and petering away in late May. We all have a different Spring tick list- dominated by the things we notice most. For some people the list could be dominated by the particular order in which they plant their vegetable seeds. For some it might be the order in which you shed the winter woollies . And for others it might be the run of boozy Bank Holidays that punctuate the calender at this time of year.

However you measure the arrival of Spring the chances are that somewhere in your list will be a nod to the natural world- be it the first daffodil, the first lambs or the return of the Swallow. Whatever it is the most important thing is that these indicators arrive roughly in the correct order.

For those of us that take an interest in the natural world the Spring is marked by arrival of particular flowers, particular emerging insects and particular migrating birds. Sometimes things run a little behind schedule, sometimes ahead of themselves, but as long as the order is maintained we're happy, it's a relief, and summer is on the way.

Chiffchaff, Sand Martin, Willow Warbler, Garden Warbler, Whitethroat, Swift. It's just the way it is and if one year the Whitethroat arrived before the Willow Warbler, or the Garden Warbler failed to turn up it wouldn't feel right at all. I still hear people that are quite put out by the fact they haven't heard a Cuckoo.

This Springs' order had been going so well. It was the 3rd of April, Chiffchaffs were nest-building, Sand Martins had been sighted, and right on queue a Willow Warbler had been heard. And then it snowed.

It had been forecast, but somehow the absurdity of the prospect of snow meant it didn't really register , it was like a be-lated April Fools. joke From about 5.30am it snowed... and snowed. The strong winds drove it sideways, our electricity was cut off, the roads blocked, and something I can only describe as 'seasonal confusion' kicked in.

By first light we were white-over, and the countryside was eerily quiet. I topped up the bird feeders and House Sparrows, Tree Sparrows, Chaffinches & Goldfinches flocked back, some species particularly the Tits had naturally dispersed in search of breeding sites so were slower to find their way back to their winter feeding station. Unsurprisingly the birds consumed more than five times the amount of food they normally do in one day at this time of year.

The dairy herd had been turned-out for the summer just a couple of weeks ago, today they found themselves back inside- not that they minded- for them as for us- confusion reigned. They could only watch, and presumably speculate that we had experienced a very short summer indeed.

Snow continued throughout the day, clearing the ground proved a waste of time as the snow simply reclaimed the exposed ground within minutes. The strong winds meant the snow drifted, areas sheltered from the wind escaped the snow and larger birds such as a Rooks, Pheasants, a Jay and a Red-Legged Partridge were seen foraging on clear ground. Black-headed Gulls also took advantage of these areas but looked strange traversing a snowy sky in full summer plumage.

We tend to lamb our sheep a little later than most farms, we do this because it would be too much work for us to care for the dairy herd whilst housed indoors and lamb the sheep- whilst not usually ideal, this year it's worked out for the best. Here some of our in-lamb ewes shelter from the blizzard. Many farmers were happily lambing their flocks outdoors and may now have lost young lambs to the freezing conditions. Even those indoors will have suffered as power cuts meant it was impossible to keep vulnerable lambs warm.

Some of our cattle had been taken to summer-grazing away from the farm, they couldn't be returned to their winter sheds and for them the snow was a nasty surprise. For the young calves it was about keeping them warm, and with no time to prepare keeping out the cold relied on straw bales, wood and of course bale-string.

Trees were emerging from winter dormancy and the sap-filled boughs struggled to cope with the wet, heavy snow and the strong winds. Boughs were brought crashing down across the farm and some roads were blocked. Thankfully we didn't lose any trees and in the woodland block the trees were relatively unscathed.

And even when in the house the fun and games weren't over. The lack of electricity only made things more challenging, and no matter how long it takes the sodding kettle to boil- tea is always a priority!

It's been a cruel 24 hours for our countryside, bad for the livestock, but perhaps worse for the wildlife. The poor Willow Warbler that flew thousands of miles to-and-from Africa and arrived just yesterday- all to avoid a UK winter will have experienced a taste of one nonetheless. The five species of butterfly that had emerged early and were flitting happily around the farm last week have will probably have perished- it's a bit depressing. When the weather does this, inconvenient, frustrating and harsh as it may seem- it's nature.

Thankfully the snow is now melting,  the forecast tells us it'll be cool for a couple more days meaning it will linger but then Spring will continue, aided by the (much-needed) water from the snow melt. It's been stressful and there will have been little tragedies right across the farm but the Willow Warbler will hopefully be singing again soon and Wednesday 4th April will probably not go down in the records as a great natural catastrophe.

In fact, just to prove that Spring continues, today will be remembered for something... our first flowering bluebell. Tick.